Feb 242011

Google, owner of the world’s most popular search engine, needs information from newspapers and others to help preserve its user base. Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

(Corrects spelling of attorney’s name in third paragraph of
story published Feb. 23.)

Google Inc. is fighting a Belgian
ruling blocking it from publishing links to local newspapers on
its online news service at a hearing today that could decide the
fate of search engines and referencing services in Europe.

Google is appealing a 2007 Belgian court ruling that its
news search breached copyright laws, forcing it to remove links
and snippets of articles from French- and German-language
newspapers. The judge in that case “seemed to have badly
understood” the functioning of Internet search services,
Google’s lawyers said.

“This case will have serious consequences to the way
information is searched and managed” on the Internet, Erik
Valgaeren, one of the lawyers representing Google, told the
Brussels Court of Appeal today. “A negative ruling would put at
risk all referencing services or even cause them to disappear.”

The court should “put an end to the hypocritical
position” of the claimants and the “astronomical sums”
they’re seeking, Valgaeren, who works in the Brussels office of
law firm Stibbe, said at the hearing.

Copiepresse, a group that represents French and German-
language newspapers, and an association that represents
journalists on copyright issues, were among those that filed the
original lawsuit after Google News was introduced in Belgium in
2006. Newspapers lose advertising revenue when Google uses
snippets of their stories and direct links, said Flip Petillion,
a Brussels-based partner with Crowell & Moring LLP, who isn’t
involved in the matter.

‘Local Market’

“Let’s not forget this is a local market, so it’s a small
and a hard market for the newspapers,” Petillion said.
“Newspapers very much live from the income generated by ads.”

A win for the newspapers “might open the door to an
entirely new set of requirements to operate in Europe that could
diverge sharply from the North American market,” said Greg Sterling, an analyst at Opus Research in San Francisco.
“Publishers might seek compensation from search engines” for
what they call unauthorized use of their content.

There is “no exception” for Google in copyright law, the
Brussels court said in its Feb. 13, 2007, ruling. The court
ordered Google to pay 25,000 euros ($34,300) a day until it
removed news content from Belgium’s French- and German-language
publications. Flemish newspapers didn’t join the case. Google
had to remove articles, photos and graphics linked to the papers
“from all its sites” and cached copies visible in searches.

Second Suit

The newspapers have a second lawsuit pending against Google
in which they seek up to 49.1 million euros for the period in
which their content was visible on Google News.

Google presented its arguments today and the hearing is
scheduled to resume in March. The Mountain View, California-
based company gets no commercial benefit from linking articles
because the news service is free, Nicolas Roland, another Google
lawyer told the court.

“I wouldn’t tell you that Google is an entirely
philanthropic company, it’s one with flourishing revenue, but
these revenues come the advertising” the company sells via its
AdWords service, Roland said.

The lawyers told the court newspapers have control over how
their content is used by search engines, arguing the editors in
this case “know the system” and “have used it.”

Highest Court

Due to its potential implications for search engines across
Europe, the case could end up in the European Union’s highest
court. The Belgian tribunal could ask the 27-nation EU’s Court
of Justice for guidance on how to interpret copyright rules in
cases such as these, Petillion said.

Google and the newspapers had to wait longer than they
wanted for this hearing. The slowness of some Belgian courts was
partly to blame, said Margaret Boribon, secretary-general for
Copiepresse. It took about two years from the end of the written
procedure, where written arguments between the parties and the
court are exchanged, to get a date for today’s court hearing.

If Google wins its appeal, that would also mean the ruling
can’t be used against search engines in other European
countries, said Petillion.

“In Europe, if you do publish copyright-protected material
without consent of the rights holder, then you have a problem,”
said Petillion. Europe differs from the U.S. in that so-called
fair use exceptions don’t apply.

The fair-use exception in the U.S. allows search engines to
“scrape” content from copyright owners, said Sterling.

“Without this idea and legal framework, Google effectively
couldn’t exist,” he said. “Google’s power, however, is such
that everyone wants to be included in search results.”

The Belgian newspapers argue Google News doesn’t generate
enough traffic (Get 10000 free hits) to their sites to make inclusion attractive.
Google News no longer references the newspapers involved in
today’s case. Only Google’s main search site lists the
newspapers, such as La Libre Belgique and Le Soir, the most-read
French-language daily in Brussels.

“If Google agrees to pay,” the newspapers will come back
to Google News, said Boribon.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Stephanie Bodoni in Luxembourg at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Anthony Aarons at

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